The word barbecue is thought to have been derived from the Spanish word Barbacoa, from back when the Spaniards first observed Caribbean natives slow cooking meat over open fires on raised wooden platforms. That trial and error practice added both mild smoke flavor and tenderness to some of their otherwise low eating quality local meat. The different meat cuts from various carcass regions are not all created equal; so shoulder meats eventually came to light as being the most suitable for true low/slow/moist heat barbecue style cookery. As it still is today, long ago there were a lot of feral hogs running around the Southern part of the U.S.; some cuts of wild pork could be inexpensively made to be much more palatable through barbecue cooking. Also, as the more affluent members of Sothern society ate high on the well marbled domesticated hogs of old, the front end cuts became affordable to those with less money. Either way, labor and time intensive barbecuing was originally a poor people practice for adding value to some otherwise tough carcass regions.
Fast forward to the late 1940’s, when the fast food trend started as home cooking simultaneously began to steadily decline. At that time America was in the middle of a long term major industrial boom; so working class people found themselves having more money and less time. Free market entrepreneurs wisely recognized the new trend and successfully gave people the convenience foods that they wanted for their modern industrialized lifestyles. At different times the economy has since cycled back to where there are many people with less food money and more leisure time, but things have never since gotten tough enough to cause a lot of people to go back to home cooking. So, the convenience food trend has prevailed ever since.
Men being men, they continue to have a seemingly natural propensity to drink beer, cook with fire, fancy themselves as pit masters and to try and “keep up with the Jones” by way of their outdoor cooking equipment. In 1952 the affordable and effective Weber kettle grill was invented and it eventually proved to be versatile enough to barbecue cook moderate amounts of meat over charcoal. Further, charcoal can be topped with suitable hardwood to add desirable smoke flavor & color to meat end-products. With the advent of functional outdoor grills, the free market had effectively filled the widely perceived need to occasionally hold on to a traditional piece of our ancestor’s cooking past. There were then, and still are, many barbecue restaurants that make a career out of adding value to underutilized (less expensive) meat cuts. Many of them also wisely use fat trimmings from roasts, to be barbecued, to add with lean and make in-house cased sausages. The fast, slow-food that such establishments provide adds more variety to the busy and/or media occupied modern mainstream public’s diet. The Kansas City Barbecue Association was founded in 1985 and is now the sanctioning body of most barbecue cooking completions. Competitors seem to be comprised primarily of teams promoting their restaurants, retirees that enjoy road trips or others that have spare time & money to burn. Currently there are about 500 barbecue cooking competitions held each year throughout the U.S.; so they have grown into a cottage industry for promoting tourism and everything barbecue related. Many of the bigger competitions have even become the source of “quality” “reality” TV programing. And, there’s Steven Raichlen who to date has authored 30 outdoor cooking books since 1998 and has hosted 3 PBS TV shows about the same subject. With all his writing and TV teaching, the definition of barbecue was eventually expanded to mean pretty much anything cooked outdoors. Needless to say, all that press, promotion and expanded barbecue definition has attracted the attention of more and more free-market entrepreneurs. Today, barbecue equipment & accessory marketers are continuously testing what the market will bear; as they attempt to create new needs and fill them. As for me, I save my money for the purchase suitable meats.
Cook books are the most common type of book published every year. Given people’s differential tastes in food and an infinite number of ingredient combinations & preparation techniques, not to mention stealing then slightly altering other people’s published recipes, there will never be a shortage of cookbooks. A lot of cooking seems to have evolved as more of a trial & error art form rather than being science based. That’s really no surprise because humans have used trial & error seemingly forever to discover what works well; then science comes along later to explain why any particular practice became successful. Some trial & error attempts are easily recognizable as hard-fails; while others only marginally affect an end-product’s appearance and/or palatability. It’s those marginally affecting cooking practices that are most susceptible to scientific debunking.
When food writer Meathead Goldwyn started up his Amazing Ribs blog site in 2005 he wisely chose hard-science to set him apart in the rapidly becoming crowed barbecue cooking field. He was open to learning and embraced scientific expert power. I myself could not discern why chefs/cooks practiced some of their phases of meat preparation, but did buy into some of their myths because they are professionals. Some of the myths that Meathead debunked reinforced what I have experienced in the commercial meat industry; while some other of his debunked myths are no big deal. Either way, the scientific approach greatly helped Meathead gain blog readership as well as major accompanying advertising dollars. Like others before him, he also embraced the dramatically expanded notion of barbecue cooking. I recently read his book titled The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling. Like the would-be food revolutionary Michael Pollan, Meathead is a gifted writer that can clearly and often believably relate his thoughts. While he did disprove a lot of “old husband tales,” it was in his economic best interest to skip teaching some less expensive (both money & time) and optimal meat preparation techniques.
The following is the page percentage breakdown of The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling:
Recipes – 58%
Outdoor cooking equipment & accessories – 24%
Meat cooking science – 12%
Smoke generation, product pickup and finished product attributes – 4%
Cooking heat transfer science – 2%
As mentioned above, recipes are proven book sellers. Meathead’s book contains recipe sections covering Brines – Rubs & Sauces, Pork, Beef, Burgers – Hot Dogs & Sausage, Lamb, Chicken & Turkey, Seafood, and Sides. In all, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling contains 208 pages of recipes. Admittedly, I didn’t read them all, but some of them may serve as reference points for me as I continue to cook mainly from scratch. I did take issue with a recipe on page 291 where it states that “When a one-year old sheep is no longer producing enough wool, it is slaughtered and the meat is called mutton.” Wool is a byproduct of meat sheep production; while mutton can be better described as meat from culled ovine breeding stock (older animals). However, I am willing to accept his assertion that alcohol should be cooked-off prior to adding alcoholic beverages to marinates; since it is also a best practice to pre-boil spice containing solutions ahead of time to knockdown any bacterial populations, knock the edge off fresh crushed garlic (always good to use) and to better blend marinate flavors.
It’s only fitting that the next largest section on the book covers hardware because that’s where the biggest money comes in from on Meathead’s blog site. Heck, some convection pellet smoke-cookers are getting close to the sophistication of commercial thermal processing units; all they lack now is total humidity control. And, the heavy metal fabrication of the big offset smokers on trailers ain’t for the faint of wallet. Book recommendations on the charcoal verses gas grill debate wisely remained noncommittal; because there are over 450 grill manufactures of both types are either current or potential blog site advertisers. Hanging meat in manufactured drum smoke-cookers is also promoted; even though there could be stagnant smoke, non-forced air heat circulation and the lower end of hanging product experiences more evaporative cooling as moisture gravity feeds down cooking meat cuts. Meathead presents a lot of good reasons to cook with solid fuel and also tells us how to easily overcome his list of charcoal cooking cons. He goes on to say that most food establishments cook with gas for a heat source and highly recommends many gas grill accessories. Besides the high cost of unnecessary fancy grills and thermometers (I do quite well using easy to keep calibrated baby dial thermometers), cleanup and maintenance of such units is far grater than the more optimal methods of smoke cooking that I advocate in my blog posts.
Other than the notable excerption of expensive spice rubs, that largely drip away along with cooking meat purge, there isn’t much money to be made from meat cooking science. Meathead himself advises that spices are composed of large molecules that won’t absorb much below the meat cut’s surface. Helping outdoor cooks become successful undoubtedly increases sales of both meat and meat cooking equipment. I had grown accustomed to producing slightly hard to pull pulled-pork because I assumed that a shorter cook time would retain more moisture and therefore produce a more palatable finished product. Meathead’s book made me realize that maximizing the gelling of collagen also enhances end-product juiciness/mouth-feel; that may more than offset more dehydration from the longer required cooking time. Slicing or bowl chopping hard to pull pork is another option. I find the claim that Meathead and his team discovered evaporative cooling, AKA the stall, to be disingenuous. To Learn why I think that way (Click Here). It might be possible to prove me wrong on this next issue, but I think Meathead misses the boat in saying that “Natural” Minimally Processed fresh pork products do not contain harvest plant added ingredients. Back when I was a young man, pork shoulder butts and bone-in loins often were delivered wrapped in white paper; inside cardboard shipping cartons. I don’t believe that practice would work well with today’s Natural labeled pork because the cardboard would be soaked through. I also seem to recall a slightly different look and feel to that boxed pork of yesteryear. I once skinned all the subcutaneous fat off a Natural labeled pork loin and could plainly see rows of needle marks in the silver-skin. Another time I started with Natural labeled pork shoulder butts to make sausage and the cooked end-product turned out much too salty. I know cut recipe called-for salt amounts in half when starting with Natural labeled fresh pork. As far back as I can recall, fully-cooked hams have been allowed to contain up to 10% added water over green weight; without having to be labeled as “water added” or the more juicy “water and ham product.” The FSIS (Food safety and Inspection Service) says of Natural Products: “All raw single ingredient meat and poultry qualify as “natural.” However, certain products labeled as natural may also contain a flavoring solution provided the solution contains ingredients that are minimally processed and not artificial; e.g. natural flavoring. The amount of solution added to products bearing natural claims is not limited. All products claiming to be natural should be accompanied by a brief statement which explains what is meant by the term “natural.” So it sounds to me like fresh pork labeled Natural & minimally processed could be pumped with minimally processed saltwater and a sodium lactate microbial inhibitor (all three are deemed to be minimally processed natural ingredients). Meathead’s coverage of the “Texas crunch” makes yet another good case for using fibrous casings in true barbecue style cooking. Precise smoke-cooker temperature control is overrated in the book because meat product thermal processing can easily be separated into a smoking phase that’s followed by an 100% humidity conventional oven finish cooking phase (as I describe in several of my blog posts). In the pork section on the book Meathead rightly advises against cooking whole hogs, but then proceeds to write 12 pages of “how-to” whole hog cooking. I don’t agree with Meatheads recommendation against mechanical meat tenderization because of the alleged possibility of introducing bacteria to the interior of cuts. Bacterial food safety is a matter of time, temperature, the final internal cooked temperature achieved and cooked temperature dwell time; all those factors allow for food-safe mechanical tenderization practiced just prior to cooking start up. Many of the time and labor intensive meat cooking heroics that Meathead recommends are unnecessary/not optimal.
I thought Meathead to be on target with his hardwood smoking recommendations. However, I simply use economical hardwood kindling on top of charcoal for smoke generation.
In the cooking heat transfer chapter I did learn something: I had always thought that since bone is a dense material that it would more rapidly conduct heat. However, I have to admit that it makes sense that the insulating air pockets found in red marrow (flat) bones could slow heat transfer. The first time that I saw the two zone grill cooking concept was many years ago on a PBS Barbecue show.
Just how long the modern Barbecue trend will remain profitable for product suppliers and commentators is anyone’s guess. But, if you want to save money and time, while eating well, listen to the uncommon advice that I have to teach you. And, if you can’t be helped then you can’t be helped. Ain’t no big deal.